Waiting for Justice

May 3, 2013

by E. Sebastian Arduengo

Last month, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.) reintroduced the Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013 to address the problems plaguing the indigent defense system which have left the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright increasingly hollow for the poorest people in our society. The act would require states to use existing federal funds to improve the administration of criminal justice in a comprehensive, strategic way, and to collaborate with the Department of Justice and local authorities to devise a plan for adequately addressing indigent defense needs. If states refuse to comply then the Department of Jusice would have the power to take them to court to make sure that they are meeting their constitutional obligations.

But Leahy’s bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to address budget-related failings in our criminal justice system. With sequestration at the federal level, and years of budget cutbacks at the state level, we’re now to the point where years of political indifference to funding the judicial branch has affected the basic operation of the courts and the services that we expect them to provide.

This is a crisis that’s reached such endemic proportions that Chief Justice John Roberts made it a focus of last year’s state of the judiciary report, where he made the case that the federal courts were already being as cost-effective as they could possibly be, and warned that “significant and prolonged shortfall[s] in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve.”

That scenario is already playing out in state and local courts across the country.

The effect of over a billion dollars of cuts in the last four years has been nothing short of devastating to the Los Angeles Superior Court system. Court officials plan to shutter a dozen courthouses and make an indeterminate number of staff layoffs. The only thing these courthouses will be used for now is for collecting traffic fines and administrative functions. The actual business of dispensing justice will be triaged at the remaining courthouses in the county, “where certain types of cases are heard at each remaining courthouse.”

In addition to the inconvenience of driving across L.A. to pursue a case in court, commentators are increasingly worried that the threat of having cases thrown out for speedy trial violations will increasingly put pressure on prosecutors to offer lenient plea deals, knowing that if a case is taken to trial the wait could be so long that the defendant could get off entirely.

It’s more likely, however, that the opposite will happen. Criminal defendants who face lengthy pre-trial confinement will plead out, even when the cases against them are weak, just to go home.

As the New York Times recently showed, extreme waits for trial are no longer much of a concern for judges in the Bronx, New York, where one judge recently wrote that a delay of three and a half years before a trial was “not necessarily unusual.” Why? Because despite moves by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to create a judicial “swat team” to reduce the number of backlogged cases in the borough by striking plea deals or dismissing cases outright, there are still not enough judicial resources to handle taking trials on anything like a timely basis.

With the cost of adding new judgeships hovering around $1 million, factoring in staff and security costs, the courts have been reluctant to request additional judges from politicians in Albany who will likely deny the request. But it’s past time for state courts to put pressure on elected officials for the funding they need. More delay simply isn’t acceptable.